Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Romania's Literary Star, or Why Americans Are Obsessed With Dracula

by Claudia Moscovici on Monday, January 31, 2011 10:30 pm

As a native Romanian who is also a novelist, I’m very intrigued and, frankly, somewhat baffled by America’s obsession with vampires and the Dracula legend.

Vampire novels and movies seem to keep growing in popularity, even as they’re spoofed by yet other vampire novels and movies. From what I can see, this trend doesn’t seem as popular in Europe. This leads me to wonder: why is America obsessed with vampires? I came up with five main reasons:

Philosophy Weekend: The Innocence of a Crowd

by Levi Asher on Sunday, January 30, 2011 09:13 am

A crowd. A cloud. A mob. What is really happening on the streets of Egypt, and why do we naturally feel optimistic about this attempt at revolution, even as we worry about the many ways it could go wrong?

Like most of my fellow Americans, I feel conflicted about the current uprisings in Egypt, because the military dictatorship these protestors want to be rid of is our own close ally. We have been its primary enabler. Still, we instinctively trust the judgement of a crowd, and we can only feel buoyed to see such a strong spontaneous expression of peaceful rebellion against an oppressive regime. But why do we instinctively trust a crowd, and how do know if this trust will or will not mislead us?

We trust a crowd because we can feel it thinking. Somehow, the mob welcomes us in, even if we're only glancing idly at it on television. Even with a quick look, we can tune into the frequencies of this hive mind, and we can see that this crowd, like most crowds, has unspoken principles. It respects human dignity, it relies on trust. It believes itself to be innocent and perfect. We suspect that this crowd will not maintain its innocence for long if it ever manages to attain some power. But that possibility is far away, and for now this crowd moves with confidence and a sure sense of grace.

The King's Speech

by Dedi Felman on Tuesday, January 25, 2011 11:26 am

(Dedi Felman, who has written previously here about the art of film adaptation, was particularly impressed with the way a screenwriter handled the challenges of a recently released historical film. Here's Dedi on The King's Speech, a new hit that's been generating a lot of Oscar nominations, and some controversy as well. -- Levi)

“Two men sitting in a room talking.” That’s how director Tom Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler described, in a recent post-screening talk, their marvel of a film, The King’s Speech. Hooper and Seidler even said that they cut back on some of the original script’s history and pageantry scenes (e.g. King George V's funeral) because they wanted to nudge us ever closer to the film’s heart: a stammerer and his speech therapist sitting around talking about how a would-be king can find his voice.

But how does one make a film about two men sitting around talking gripping? Especially if one of those men has a stammer and makes us “wait a long time” for the punchline to his jokes? And how does one create even a modicum of suspense in a story of a family about whom the basic facts are part of the history books? The wartime broadcasts that lie at the core of this story made a huge impression on their listeners and so, spoilers or no, many audience members are aware that George VI does make it through the speech. Similarly, Edward’s deliciously scandalous abdication on account of an American divorcee is common lore. So we know a great deal going in. Yet we're still completely drawn into Bertie's plight. Will he find his voice?

Philosophy Weekend: Philosophy at the Book Review

by Levi Asher on Saturday, January 22, 2011 10:01 pm

My worlds collide. I used to review the New York Times Book Review here every weekend, and then I got tired of the routine and decided to use the space instead to cover the philosophy beat (and review some of my own original ideas). But this weekend's Book Review is a philosophy issue, featuring three substantial articles and a cover illustration allegedly representing great thinkers like Plato, Kant, Descartes, Seneca, Augustine and Rousseau in some sort of faux-ancient diagram. I'm too curious to stay away -- let's dive in and see what we find.

First up: Sarah Bakewell on a volume of philosopher mini-biographies, James Miller's Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche. It happens I just read a good new book by Sarah Bakewell called How To Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, which I hope to write more about soon. Today's article doesn't go down as smoothly as the book, though. Bakewell begins by justifying the rationale for studying the lives of philosophers along with their ideas (an easy sell, as far as I'm concerned), and then spins a few quick stories from the book. But the stories she cites focus more on the weird quirks of various great thinkers, rather than deeply considered appraisals of their entire lives.

So we hear that Immanuel Kant "ended his life in an obsessive-compulsive hell, endlessly consulting thermometers and barometers" and that Diogenes the Cynic "lived in a clay jar, masturbated on the street and embraced snow-covered statues" (don't we all?). But these are sound bites, cocktail-party one-liners, banal anecdotes that only serve to caricature the great philosophers rather than helping us understand them as fully-realized people.

Philosophy Weekend: Socrates's Challenge

by Levi Asher on Saturday, January 8, 2011 10:40 am

Socrates: When you speak of a person desiring fine things, do you mean it is good things he desires?

Meno: Certainly.

Socrates: Then do you think some people desire evil and others good? Doesn't everyone, in your opinion, desire good things?

Meno: No.

Socrates: And would you say that the others suppose evil to be good, or do they still desire them although they recognize them as evil?

Meno: Both, I should say.

Socrates: What? Do you really think that anyone who recognizes evils for what they are, nevertheless desires them?

Meno: Yes.

Socrates: Desires in what way? To possess them?

Meno: Of course.

Socrates: In the belief that evil things bring advantage to their possessor, or harm?

Meno: Some in the first belief, but some also in the second.

Socrates: And do you believe that those who suppose evil things bring advantage understand that they are evil?

Meno: No, that I can't really believe.

Socrates: Isn't it clear then that this class, who don't recognize evils for what they are, don't desire evil but what they think is good, though in fact it is evil, those who through ignorance mistake bad things for good obviously desire the good?

Meno: For them I suppose that is true.

Socrates: Now as for those whom you speak of as desiring evils in the belief that they do harm to their possessor, those presumably know that they will be injured by them?

Meno: They must.

Socrates: And don't they believe that whoever is injured is, in so far as he is injured, unhappy?

Meno: That too they must believe.

Socrates: And unfortunate?

Meno: Yes.

Socrates: Well, does anybody want to be unhappy and unfortunate?

Meno: I suppose not.

Socrates: Then in not, nobody desires what is evil, for what else is unhappiness but desiring evil things and getting them?

Meno: It looks as if you are right, Socrates, and nobody desires what is evil.

Socrates: Now you have just said that virtue consists in a wish for good things plus the power to acquire them. In this definition the wish is common to everyone, and in that respect no one is better than his neighbor.

Meno: So it appears.
-- Plato, Meno

Vision in Combray: Proust Beyond the Madeleines Concluded

by Michael Norris on Monday, December 13, 2010 10:50 pm

(In June 2009, Michael Norris began a series of explorations of Marcel Proust's long masterpiece In Search of Lost Time that concludes with a personal coda today. Thanks to Mike Norris and artist David Richardson for this extensive work! A page devoted to the entire series has just been created here. -- Levi)

I awoke to a hellish clanging. Bells! Sunlight filtered in through the shutters. I shifted gradually from sleep to consciousness, and as I did, I remembered where I was. Combray. Well, Illiers-Combray. The French village that inspired Marcel Proust. The town started its life as Illiers, and was renamed Illiers-Combray in 1971 on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Proust’s birth.

The bells continued relentlessly. Of course! It was early Sunday morning. It was the bells of the church, Saint Jacques (Saint Hilaire in In Search of Lost Time) summoning the townspeople to mass. My wife was still sleeping, oblivious to the din. I slipped into my clothes and went downstairs.

The hotel where we were staying, Hôtel de l’Image, is the sole lodging in the center of town. The only other hotel is near the railway station. The Hôtel de l’Image stands on the town square, sandwiched between a grocery store and a pharmacy, just a few steps from the church. There is a single café on the square. The hotel bar serves as an alternative to the café for those who want to get in out of the hot morning sun.

I took a seat at the far end of the bar and ordered an espresso. It was wonderfully cool inside, and a breeze blew in from the door that opened on to the street. Outside, I could see the bright sun already beating down on the outdoor tables of the café.

Proust's Lost Time: Beyond The Madeleines

by Michael Norris on Monday, December 13, 2010 10:29 am

Between June 2009 and December 2010, Michael Norris explored Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, also known as Remembrance of Things Past, in these pages. Here, with original artwork by David Richardson, is the entire sequence.

Marcel Proust: Beyond the Madeleines
June 16, 2009

Pondering Proust II
September 8, 2009

Pondering Proust III: Guermantes Way
November 16, 2009

Beat Reflections

by Levi Asher on Monday, December 6, 2010 10:31 pm

It's almost 2011, and the Beat Generation is as hot a topic as ever. Especially when it comes to new movies. Here's the rundown:

1. Way back in 1952, long before Howl, long before On The Road, the phrase "Beat Generation" appeared for the first time in a New York Times Magazine Article by an up-and-coming New York City writer, John Clellon Holmes. Holmes, a good friend of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and a founding member of the original Beat circle in New York City, also wrote several novels that were respectably reviewed. But he lacked the charisma and theatricality of the later Beat writers, and struggled for literary success even as his friends reached explosive levels of fame.

It's only because of these legendary friends, and not because of his own fiction, that John Clellon Holmes merits an extensive literary biography by Ann and Samuel Charters today. Brother-Souls: John Clellon Holmes, Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation is unusual among literary biographies because its hero never had a breakout success. Instead, he filled out his career with dead end manuscripts, odd magazine assignments and college teaching jobs. In this sense, Brother-Souls is actually a more accurate glimpse of how most writers live than any typical biography of a famous writer. Still, mostly due to Ann and Sam Charters' obvious affection for their subject (who was their close friend), a poignant and meaningful storyline emerges. The most surprising chapters take place during the 1960s, when Holmes and his wife Shirley attempt to find their own inroads into the swinging counterculture by experimenting earnestly (and at a very intellectual level) with free love and group sex. These experiments failed more often than not, sometimes leaving deep psychic wounds behind, and the chronicles of these failures (which Holmes himself later tried to publish a book about) provide a new angle -- an Updikeean angle, surprisingly enough -- on the famous legend of the Beats. Brother-Souls, though clearly a labor of love by the Charters team, is a nice addition to their body of work (Ann Charters wrote the first biography of Jack Kerouac, many decades ago).

Bookshop Memories: The Liberty Lobby

by Alan Bisbort on Wednesday, December 1, 2010 07:30 am

(Another installment of Alan Bisbort's bookselling memoir.)

Because our bookshop was located within eyeshot of the U.S. Capitol’s snow-white dome, we still retained some guilt by association with the political world. You had to walk to the corner and then look eight blocks west to see the dome, but nonetheless its magical aura enfolded us too. As tempting as it may have been, we could not bury our heads in the sands, burrow deeper inside our antiquarian world and hope to stay in business. This was simply not possible in Washington, D.C., at least not in the middle of the Reagan-Gingrich Revolution.

Though politics and civics were two of the shop’s weaker subject areas, we were occasionally visited by politicos and lobbyists brave or absent-minded enough to venture into the less-traveled (and more feared) zones of the District of Columbia. Often, they were on their lunch breaks and, having wandered a street or two too far, stumbled onto the shop by accident. Most of these visitors had not, previously, known we existed. And few of them ever returned.

Among this group of political animals, one critter stood out. He was a resident expert—perhaps the resident expert—at the Liberty Lobby, a far-right-wing organization about which I knew little beyond what this fellow suggested it must be like.

His name was John Tiffany, and he was, despite the name, neither delicate nor colorful, nor was he in any way illuminating. He always seemed to be wearing the same flannel shirt. He sported a sort of whisk-broom moustache that he must have fancied was manly—an antidote, no doubt, to all the feminists and lesbians who held court hereabouts and made men like John Tiffany nervous. He was one of the few people I had ever seen who employed a pocket protector, inside which were housed the tools of his trade as a writer of political and historical spin. And he was tongue-tied, floor-gazing, completely at a loss in any one-on-one human encounter.

Philosophy Weekend: Kim Jong-Il and the Loony Way Out

by Levi Asher on Saturday, November 27, 2010 01:17 am

This week's scary news of a sudden attack on South Korea by North Korea brought North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il into the spotlight again. But, all too often the analysis of this dangerous politician's motivation and character takes a quick dive into comic disbelief. "He's a loon." "He's out of his mind." "Kim Jong-Il is a nutjob."

This material can make good comedy -- and, listen, I don't understand the haircut either. But I sure hope nobody thinks "Kim Jong-Il is a loon" can substitute for real insight. A statement like this is, rather, a display of no insight. It signifies that some logic or explanation for Jong-Il's actions exists, and that we are blind to it. A statement like this is the opposite of insight.

We love comedy and satire in the United States of America, and we often have fun with the shrill, hysterical personalities of our military opponents. There's nothing wrong with this, unless we allow it to become a dead end for our own knowledge. When it comes to understanding North Korea here in the USA, this seems to have taken place. Kim Jong-Il is a Saturday Night Live skit, and as far as most Americans know, that's all he is.

Is Kim Jong-Il actually crazy? The evidence for this is slight, though his embattled leadership position has probably pushed his sanity towards the edges. However, we don't even have strong information about whether or not Kim Jong-Il is the prime decision-maker within the government, so it may not matter whether he is insane or not. Often in history we have misunderstood our enemy's internal workings. (For instance, during World War II it was generally believed among US and British military strategists that the Prussian military leadership was driving military strategy in Nazi Germany, when in fact this took place within Hitler's Nazi Party, a completely different organization. If we had known this during World War II, we could have helped the Prussian military clique overthrow Hitler, as it was desperately trying to do).

Like the government of every nation in the world, North Korea's is run by some kind of hive mind, and if we don't want to blunder our way through the Korean crisis (the way George W. Bush seemed to blunder through every foreign engagement for eight years) we are going to need to dig a little deeper and try to understand this hive mind. We're going to have to challenge our own intellects a little more.


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